It might not look like much to an outsider, but to the few that call it home, a small camp under the Betsy Ross Bridge in Bridesburg is more than a transient home — it represents freedom and independence.
The camp, which homeless advocate Harvey Lockridge says is part of what he calls his “Nu-Look Ministry,” has been in place for four months.
The members are basically those who remained after “Camp Liberty,” the homeless camp that popped up under I-95 in Port Richmond, was shuttered. That camp took shape just after the Occupy Philly movement — part of the national protest against so-called corporate and Wall Street greed — broke down during late fall as city officials moved demonstrators from sites around City Hall.
On a sunny Thursday afternoon last week, Lockridge walked down the dirt path to his Bridesburg camp, not far from Richmond and Lewis streets, while making his way through high foliage — all of it on city-owned property.
He described the place as a ministry that wants to help members turn their lives around. Though the camp no longer is part of Occupy Philly — “I told everybody we didn’t associate with Occupy,” said Lockridge — he acknowledges that it did help give a voice to the city’s homeless population.
But he must take the next steps, he said, on his own.
“I’m a branch from that tree,” he said, referring to the Occupy protest. “They gave me a start.”
Lockridge says he’s a licensed minister - though not here, but in Oklahoma, where he’s from originally. His ministry has goals that differ from those of the Occupy movement, he said. Rather than make the plight of the homeless a visible thing, the camp is hidden away to allow the occupants — a rotating group of five or six people, but sometimes as many as 10 — to have a sanctuary away from the “hustle and bustle” of the city, Lockridge explained.
“In Philadelphia, homeless people have nothing … here they have a chance to find themselves,” said Lockridge. “I try to teach them how to save their money … if you’re out panhandling, you’ll get locked up.”
Actually, the camp is somewhat reminiscent of the recent Occupy Philly encampment. A row of about six tents lines the grass abutting a fence that separates city-owned land from property managed by the Delaware River Port Authority. The manicured grass is stark contrast to the overgrowth that surrounds the camp.
Although the city-owned land isn’t under the jurisdiction of the DRPA, police officers with the port agency keep a close watch on the camp. The city police department has the task of responding to any problems there.
In fact, as Lockridge provided a tour of the camp last Thursday, DRPA officers stopped for a routine check on the activity. According to DRPA officer B. Keister, the camp hasn’t been a problem during its four-month existence.
“We haven’t seen any activity back there, and we’d be the first to see it. You can see that by how quick we came over when you were back there,” he said to a reporter.
At the camp, a small tent furnished with dry goods was occupied by 43-year-old Robert — who pointed to a can of coffee grounds and told a reporter “just call me coffee or something” when asked his last name.
Robert’s fingers were digging through a pack of old cigarette butts. He found one long enough to light, took a slow, thoughtful drag, and was willing to discuss why he became part of the small community.
ldquo;I believe the best way to get your life right is to isolate yourself,” he said.
But why live here instead of, say, at one of the city’s many homeless shelters?
Robert scoffed at the notion. Shelters are often full, and the close quarters make for uncomfortable situations, he said.
“There’s no privacy there,” he reasoned. “It’s mental anguish that you go through. I don’t sleep well at a shelter.”
Yet it’s possible that the camp might not be a place to sleep for much longer.
During a March 21 meeting of the Bridesburg Town Watch, residents had some problems with the arrangement.
Roughly 50 people were in attendance, and many seemed focused on the camp’s removal, contending that inhabitants are violating city laws.
On the other hand, there didn’t seem to be much concern about one woman’s comments and the likelihood that her son is violating city law that regulates off-road vehicles.
“My son rides them, and that’s fine,” she said, complaining about the camp being on land near where her son rides his all-terrain vehicle illegally.
Others at the meeting expressed worry that their children could be at risk when riding off-road vehicles or fishing in the area where the homeless camp exists. Also, rumors filled the room of an underage, 16-year-old girl possibly living at the camp.
As it turned out, the next day, a young girl was leaving the camp as a reporter toured the area. She identified herself only as “Brittany” and swore she was an adult, born in 1994, but then suggested that any further questions should be discussed with her 19-year-old boyfriend.
He was not at the camp. Brittany cast aside other questions and left the site.
At the time, Lockridge swore she was 18-years-old.
At that Town Watch meeting a day earlier, City Councilman Bobby Henon (D-6th dist.) told the people that he is doing all he can to shutter the camp.
“The city isn’t going to just say, ‘You’re out,’” Henon said. “There are activists and other people out there who don’t think like those here in this room.”
Henon said he sometimes thinks “them squatters have more rights than we do.”
After the meeting, when asked about that comment, Henon said that because of other concerns — such as mental-health issues that must be taken into consideration — any discussions about a homeless group can complicated. Henon said he had to create a “collaboration with three or four agencies” that he is working with to address the Bridesburg encampment.
Those agencies include Project H.O.M.E., a high-profile advocacy group in the city, he said. As of presstime this week, a Project H.O.M.E. representative had not returned phone calls to discuss the camp under the Betsy Ross Bridge.
Henon, meanwhile, promised an amicable outcome. “I feel confident, in the most positive way, that there’s going to be a resolution here,” he said.
Back at the camp, Robert said he knows that its days are numbered.
In fact, on Monday, the Star received an anonymous tip that the campers had been told to move along by Thursday, March 29.
Lockridge said he heard no such thing and contacted Monday, police in the 15th District had heard of no plan to remove the encampment.
But that isn’t the point.
Instead, Robert said, the encampment has been an example of a small group of homeless people finding a way to survive on their own.
“There’s no solution. There’s no panacea. This doesn’t solve the (homeless) problem. But it addresses it,” Robert said. “This camp cannot survive forever. We have to move on eventually. We have to have a place that we can call home.” ••
Managing editor Hayden Mitman can be reached at 215-354-3124 or firstname.lastname@example.org